Despite being mired in NCAA allegations and the loss of North Carolina legend Dean Smith, the UNC Tar Heels advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before suffering a late game collapse to fall to the Wisconsin Badgers.
For many college basketball programs, a season ending in a NCAA tournament run to the Sweet Sixteen would be considered a grand success. But for a program as storied and historically successful as the North Carolina Tar Heels and a team that was ranked in the pre-season Top 10, even a loss to the top seeded Wisconsin Badgers comes as a disappointment.
Coming into the 2014-15 season, hopes were high for the North Carolina Tar Heels despite a lackluster 85-83 loss to Iowa State in the Round of 32 in NCAA Tournament to round out the 2013-14 season. Despite losing the perpetual star in the making James Michael McAdoo, and senior shooter Leslie McDonald, the Tar Heels returned one of the the best young front-courts in college hoops featuring Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson. The additions of 5 star recruits Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry II brought youth and depth to provide backcourt help to the work-horse and unquestioned leader of this Tar Heel squad, PG Marcus Paige.
But inconsistent play, an untimely injury to Paige and slow freshman development all led to a Tar Heel team that despite great improvement over the course of the season and its best play in the ACC and NCAA tournament, fell short of many fans’ expectations.
Peaks and valleys defined UNC’s season. The season began a bit flat as UNC lost a couple surprising games to the Butler Bulldogs at the Atlantis Tournament in which the Tar Heels were favored and to the Iowa Hawkeyes at home in the Dean Dome. An additional loss to Kentucky at the Rupp Center (understandable) left UNC with three losses and only two notable victories (vs. UCLA, vs. Florida).
But as the season wore on, the Tar Heels gained some steam heading into ACC conference play, going 11-1 after the UK game, beating Ohio State and Louisville during the streak. Strong rebounding and passing (ranked 2nd in the nation in both offensive rebounding and assists) led the Tar Heels during this streak and throughout the season. But just as the North Carolina Tar Heels had risen, they also stumbled out of conference play, falling to rival Duke twice, Virginia once and an inexplicable loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers. A foot injury to freshman Theo Pinson additionally hurt the Tar Heels backcourt scoring ability.
Coming out of the regular season, it seemed that the Tar Heels were destined for a 6-seed in the tournament. But a surge in the ACC Tournament with wins over Virginia and Louisville brought the UNC to the tournament final, where they were picked apart by the three-point shooting of Notre Dame. As a four seed in the NCAA Tournament, the terrific rebounding of Brice Johnson and a hobbled Kennedy Meeks led the Tar Heels to the Sweet Sixteen, before getting outmatched by the eventual finalists Wisconsin. B+ may seem like a harsh grade for a Sweet Sixteen team, but as many in Chapel Hill would tell you, this is Carolina Basketball.
As mentioned above, the North Carolina Tar Heels found success in using their front-court, which was one of the deepest and best in the nation. Brice Johnson, a junior forward led the Tar Heels in rebounding at 7.7 rebounds per game and was the team’s second leading scorer at 13.2 points per game. Kennedy Meeks was also a force inside (7.3 rpg) and UNC’s front-court depth was bolstered by the contributions of Isaiah Hicks and Joel James.
The Tar Heel backcourt was more of an adventure. Marcus Paige was the team’s undisputed leader, in both on the court (led UNC with 14.1 ppg, 4.5 assists per game) and off, and was the team’s only real three point threat. Back-up PG Nate Britt, slowly developed a long-range jumper that kept opposing teams more honest, but the emergence of Britt’s and freshman Joel Berry’s shooting didn’t come until late in the season. Top 10 recruit Justin Jackson also emerged as a reliable scorer, but not until late in the season
Freshman Theo Pinson, expected to be an additional offensive threat from the SG position, was hampered by a foot injury for a good chunk of the year. Finally, human spark-plug J.P. Tokoto provided good passing (4.3 apg) but was unable to develop a consistent jump shot to help space the floor.
UNC head coach Roy Williams always faces the highest of expectations at the beginning of each college basketball season. The 2014-15 season was no different for Roy and his Tar Heels. This was most definitely not Williams’ most talented North Carolina team, but still most likely a squad that should not have lost 12 games this year.
Williams also had to deal with a great deal of youth on his team, with his only seniors being deep on the bench and his undisputed leader junior guard Marcus Paige being asked to play the role of superstar. Yet Williams never changed his coaching style, and it took until late into the season for the entire UNC team to buy in. At the same time, Williams also navigated UNC through a tough year off the court which was marked by the death of UNC legends Stuart Scott and Dean Smith along with numerous NCAA allegations.
Overall, this season was a testament to the veteran coaching ability brought by Roy Williams. At times he would stubbornly hoard his timeouts, and upset fans by not drawing up better plays (re: end of home ND loss) but he and his coaching staff were also able to succeed while covering up some of his team’s obvious shortcomings. He game-planned around his team’s lack of three point shooting by pounding the ball inside, helping to create space for his shooters Paige and Britt, while also giving lanes to slashers Tokoto and Jackson. In the past three years, Williams has had to deal with very young teams with undeveloped talent, and he has succeeded in making the tournament each of those years, something that he does not get enough credit for.
A Sweet Sixteen finish was about right for this 2014-2015 North Carolina Tar Heels squad. Inconsistent play and difficult off the court circumstances made this season a real up and down journey for UNC. UNC returns most everyone from this team (sans Tokoto) and will once again be expected to compete for a National Championship in the 2015-16 season.
Overall Grade: B+
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